So now I'm on to Creativity, Inc (I may be consuming these faster than I'm able to blog about them) and - back the truck up! Pixar's CTO invented the z-buffer!? Why, he must be the same Catmull of Catmull-Rom splines! Respect!
I'm enjoying the book a great deal both as storytelling and as an advice column but there is of course no cure for werewolves here - a lot of the stories sound very similar to corporate game development. "No matter what we try our movies always suck at first and we have to go through hell in order to fix them." I was particularly horrified by the story that, during the Toy Story 2 hell, a Pixar employee forgot to drop his kid off at daycare on the way to work one morning during the Toy Story 2 hell, left him in the car, and the child was unconscious by the time he remembered. Would that employee have made the same mistake if he wasn't overworked? No way to know for sure, but just imagining the possibility is terrifying.
That said, it's clear they're trying and I just checked Pixar on Glassdoor and it does seem like people are happy there. (4.0. So, it's not Microsoft, but it's pretty good. On that note, this was my first week at Microsoft! I am stoked.)
What really makes me think is the section on critical feedback. I have a troubled relationship with criticism. I thought it was essential up until I was in my forties (in fact, back when I ran a creative writing workshop in Venice I assumed everyone was there because they wanted the gut punch of brutal criticism and had a 'no defending your work' rule. Membership dwindled to a fraction of its former glory under my enlightened leadership. Go figure.) and then started to get tired of people telling me the myriad of ways my games could be better or I could be a better person... more ways than I could ever possibly address! And when I read Johnstone's Impro, where he rails against criticism as a destroyer of art and killer of babies, it resonated with me deeply. Yes, having an art tutor in middle school was why I stopped making art. Yes, instead of working on my novel for ten years until it was 'perfect' I could have written a half dozen novels and one of them was likely to be just as good as that 'perfect' one and surely would have sold more copies. Yes, there is only a slightly-above-average chance that even addressing someone's criticism will actually make a product better. Yes, we wouldn't have abandoned the stealth gameplay from Spider-Man 3 that IMO presaged the Arkham games if internal critics hadn't pounced on it too early.
And to top it all off it just hurts. It is not fun, and if you fill your days with it it probably means your days or not fun. I unfortunately forget which of the books I've read lately mentioned it--perhaps it was The Happiness Advantage?--but there's also some negative literature about performance reviews, those days that come once or twice a year where we shit on each other and the whole company needs to spend a few days recovering from the morale hit. Cerny talked about the 'stench of failure' that can affect projects that are revealed too early. Wow, I can just go on about it, can't I? Side note: my girlfriend and I pretty much have a tacit keep-your-mouth-shut-when-you-want-to-criticize-unless-it's-absolutely-essential understanding and we've been together for years, drama free. Best relationship ever. :)
And then Ed Catmull comes along and says that at Pixar, their brain trust of executives that candidly points out flaws in their movies is absolutely essential and one of the key ingredients of Pixar films.
It clearly works for Pixar.
So what's up?
There are a few things about the brain trust review at Pixar that Catmull talks about that have been missing from the criticism I'm familiar with. Catmull acknowledges that criticism causes a possibly instinctual defensive reaction and that can make soliciting criticism like a trip to the dentist: necessary but painful.
I'm going to have to re-listen to the chapter, but some things stood out to me that are different about the Pixar way.
- One thing was it is trusted peers giving the criticism, not necessarily bosses. (Obviously Lasseter is in charge and involved in these meetings but he's earned it, yeah?) These are other successful movie-makers; not a bunch of executives from Activision HQ who have never made a game before on a strafing run to say 'ur combat sux.'
- Another thing is that the creator knows the criticism is coming and can not only 'clench up' but gets to choose what they submit for criticism. They're not ambushed with 'hey, we need to talk to you about your level which we pulled down from perforce and tried last night without you knowing' or whatever.
- The creator gets to make some disclaimers beforehand. "This isn't ready, I know this still needs work, but this area I think is ready for judgment." So time isn't wasted beating any already dead horses. I bet this is more important than it sounds. When I get criticized for something I already know is wrong I feel this nearly uncontrollable urge to point out 'yeah, I know that needs work' to rebalance the status equation.
- It's understood that it is a process to make the product better, not a warning shot prior to cancellation. The product is being protected.
- Perfect world it's a criticism of the work and not the person but that's easier said than done. I think we probably need constant reminders of 'you're awesome' and to paraphrase Jake the Dog, 'dude, sucky work is the first step to sorta good work.'
So I think I'll let some criticism back into my life. Hell, I'll have to now that I don't work for myself anymore. But I will try my damnedest to remember the above stuff when giving criticism, and when receiving I'll try to guide the critical along the same path. "Would you like feedback on your criticism?" :)